Published August 6, 2021
In a recent Fox News piece, sociologist Andrea Laurent-Simpson writes of the emergence of “multispecies families,” explaining that in “child-free families…dogs and cats paw in to fill a longing to nurture” and would-be grandparents “readily shift over to spoiling the granddog as their daughters and sons choose instead to pursue lucrative careers.” But this is neither good nor new.
The ancient historian Plutarch began his life of Pericles with an anecdote about Caesar, who, upon seeing “wealthy foreigners in Rome carrying puppies and young monkeys about in their bosoms and fondling them” asked, “if the women in their country did not bear children.” Plutarch thought this a “princely” rebuke of “those who squander on animals that proneness to love and loving affection which is ours by nature, and which is due only to our fellow-men.”
Another ancient text tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. There is certainly nothing new about treating pets as substitutes for children, though it does seem to be more common of late, a trend that debases us and deforms our pets — literally in some cases. The overbreeding of dogs has, for instance, produced breeds that struggle to breathe or routinely need C-sections to give birth. If these people love dogs, then it is with a selfish and consumerist sort of love.
Dogs Are Good Beasts — But Still Beasts
Of course, we ought to love our pets. But this love must be directed to them as the animals they are, rather than as mere objects for our amusement, or as substitutes for children. I love my dogs and try to take good care of them. They were bred to be loveable, and they are entertaining and affectionate. And they have a place in family life. With the right training and supervision, dogs and kids are great for each other. My daughter really, really loves our dogs. Notably, neither she nor the dogs are confused about who is the human. That sort of disordered affection requires an adult.
Pets may be valuable companions to the lonely and childless, but it is perverse to make this palliative measure into a preference, deliberately rejecting children in favor of a pampered pet. Dogs are capable of giving and receiving affection, but there is a point past which the personalities that enthusiastic owners ascribe to them are anthropomorphic projections. In such cases, pets are treated like animate dolls — repositories of the interpersonal needs and longings of their owners. The substitution of pets for people thereby stifles a person’s capacity to give and receive love, as it wrongly directs our greatest earthly affections toward ourselves.
The proliferation of twee “dog moms” and “fur babies” and “grandpuppies” illustrates American self-indulgence and cultural decadence. Marriage and birth rates are declining as people abandon the basic biological imperative of pairing off and having children. Filling the interpersonal void with dogs is an understandable response to this.
But what we need are other persons. We are, in important ways, incomplete and not fully human on our own. As Aristotle long ago noted, man is a social animal, and a man who can live without others must be either a beast or a god — people who don’t need people aren’t really people.
The Christian may add that in exceptional circumstances or vocations a few people may need to rely entirely on animal companionship and the person of God, but there is no good reason to deliberately turn to beasts in place of persons.
The Human Condition Requires New Humans
Trying to turn pets into substitute children gives the game away. It is the very old trick of having one’s cake and eating it too. This substitution is an attempt to satisfy the human longings to love and nurture new persons, and to be loved by them in turn, without the labor, responsibility and risk of having children. But there is no substituting for the human person, and even the best of pets is only a shadow of a copy of the reality of human family.
The difference is one of depth. The mature and the wise have pleasures and satisfactions, as well as pains, of which the childish and foolish know nothing. Parenting requires much more self-giving and self-sacrifice than having a pet, but it also provides a fuller and more substantial life. The best dog in the world is nothing compared to the begetting of a new person through the loving union of a mother and father united for life and dedicated to the care of their children.
But for many, this increasingly seems like an impossible ideal. It is easy to direct (deserved) opprobrium at the apostles of the “child-free interspecies family” lifestyle, but this does little to help those who feel that a stable marriage and children are out of reach. Thus, we must work, culturally and politically, to make it easier for people to form and maintain families, and for those who remain single to still be involved in family life. If we do not do this, we may find our nation literally going to the dogs.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.